UPDATE: CORRUPTION ERUPTION!
ROCK NEWS WIRE
UPDATE: KSBY INTERVIEW ADDED
Longtime County Administrator David Edge is fired. CalCoastNews.com reporter says County may be subject of a federal investigation. The lid is blowing off the volcano of corrupt County government, and it’s all happening during Supervisor Bruce Gibson’s reign as Chair of the Board of Supervisors. But are the latest headline-grabbing allegations of wrongdoing just a smokescreen for deeper, more serious allegations that just won’t go away?
It was never an easy task to begin with, but trusting the officials of San Luis Obispo County to govern themselves, let alone manage County business, just got even harder.
On Tuesday, May 19, after 11 years as County Administrator, David Edge’s employment contract was terminated by the County without cause, that is, without having to provide a cause or reason for letting him go. Edge’s contract required a public vote by the Board, but Edge, in his sometimes critical, fatalistic comments to the Board, called his termination a predetermined “public execution” and urged its “inevitable” conclusion so “everybody can continue to do what they need to do.”
Edge said he welcomed a full, public investigation to clear his name, although, unless a lawsuit materializes, no investigation is likely.
“Unlike some,” said Edge, “I have absolutely nothing to hide or fear or hide from that kind of review. I think it would serve me well. For the rest I’m not so sure.”
[ADD TO TOPIC OF FIRING – KSBY INTERVIEW: “The majority (of the Board of Supervisors) clearly wanted to go in a different direction. For a couple of years the relationship has been souring a little with a couple of Board members who wanted to operate in a different way than I was used to operating, and with the election and changeover of the Board they had a majority. It was I think an inevitability... (Retirement was the likely outcome until the allegations surfaced and that provided (the new Board majority) with the opportunity to do what they wanted to do anyway.”]
When Gibson called for a Board vote on Edge’s fate, a seemingly distraught Supervisor Kachadjian couldn’t quite bring himself to vote “yes.” “I decided not so support it, simply because Mr. Edge is the person on trail, if we want to put it that way, and he wants an investigation, so be it…”
Gibson interrupted to ask Kachadjian for his vote. “…But I’m regrettably going to vote ‘yes’ because just to show unanimity among us and move forward for all the good reasons that possibly don’t exist…”
Said Edge about our County government, a government shrouded in what he calls “a stifling political correctness”: “I suffered hubris back in 1998 in thinking that I could actually change such a deep-seeded organizational culture as that which we have here (in San Luis Obispo).”
[ADD TO TOPIC OF COUNTY – KSBY INTERVIEW: “(The County government) is a place where you simply can’t have honest conversations in without running the risk of detrimental action thereafter.”]
On May 12, in a story headlined “Who’s running SLO County?” Karen Velie of Web site CalCoastNews.com reported that both Edge and Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox had been placed on indefinite paid administrative leave.
A single source told CalCoastNews (CCN) that Wilcox had leveled sexual harassment charges against Edge, her mentor, defender and boss, and that he had “stepped down.” The same CCN source claimed that the Board of Supervisors met in closed session on May 8 to discuss the allegations and that Edge and Wilcox were then placed on paid administrative leave, Edge on May 7, Wilcox on May 11.
Single-source stories are not the standard for better newspapers, and Velie sought confirmation or denial of the tip from County officials. By law County employees are not permitted to discuss confidential personnel matters with the public, and Velie was referred to Supervisor Gibson’s office. Gibson’s Legislative Assistant, Sherri Aispuro, told CCN that Wilcox was on paid administrative leave and thought Edge was on vacation, “back east as his son’s graduation.” Based on confirmation that Edge and Wilcox were placed on leave at the same time, Velie went with the story.
At his hearing Edge called the leaks from closed session that may have formed the basis of the CCN story “rather inaccurate… It’s generated some extreme unpleasantness in the blog world … and that particular unpleasantness will inevitably taint my reputation as I move on…”
Said Board Chairman Bruce Gibson, “This action today is not about the speculation on the blogs. It’s not about the wild accusations, rumors, supposition and innuendo” of sexual harassment allegations involving Edge that were not mentioned or addressed at the hearing because his at-will contract requires no explanation for his firing.
[ADD TO RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS – KSBY INTERVIEW: “That’s what I’ve been told (that an informal complaint had been made that I created a hostile work environment). I haven’t seen any complaint… As I understand it the allegation is that the series of conversations and communications that Gail (Wilcox) and I have had over the years she felt were unwanted intrusions into her private life… I don’t believe (she has accused me of sexual harassment). The issue if it became formal would be one of a hostile work environment… It really took me aback, I had no idea … Gail and I had been close for a decade in the office… We had extensive conversations over the years, of a professional nature and of a personal nature… I felt I was being there, simply doing what I do for employees that wanted to talk… Something like this is such an unexpected kick that it hurts.”]
CCN is not a blog, but a well-researched and documented news site, and this was not the first CCN story involving Edge and Wilcox. In June 2008 CCN broke a story, summarized on CCN’s Web site, as “a cozy mortgage relationship between Wilcox and attorney and a prominent county vendor, attorney Clay Hall, in a deal approved and defended by Edge” – which raised conflict of interest questions then.
The same day the latest story hit the ground, Velie was a guest on “The Dave Congalton Show” on KVEC talk radio. She told Congalton that this matter could also possibly be part of a larger investigation.
“I’ve had County employees tell me that there’s still an investigation into the allegations,” Velie said on the radio show, “and I don’t know if it’s regarding this house purchase (where) the vendor put quite a bit of money down on her home, or if it’s related to something else, but numerous County employees have called repeatedly, usually anonymous sources, and said there’s some investigation by the federal government into the County. Now this may or may not be true, I am not sure.”
After CCN broke the story, Bob Cuddy of the Tribune jumped on it as “breaking news” on the Trib’s Web site, www.sanluisobispo.com – quoting, but not crediting, CalCoastNews.com as the source – a cardinal sin of journalistic envy, sometimes referred to as plagiarism. At least Cuddy updated the story by adding a few quotes from a brief telephone interview with Edge, and a briefer comment from Supervisor Gibson, current Chair of the Board, that served as a confirmation of the general allegations.
Gibson told Cuddy that the paid leaves of Edge and Wilcox were “for investigation of personnel issues.” Privacy laws prevent Gibson or County employees from elaborating, but Gibson’s comment could easily be construed as surrogate language for misconduct.
According to Cuddy’s update, Edge called the CCN story a “sleaze piece.” He denied he had resigned or had been asked to resign, or that he had any intention of leaving his post – which proved to be less than true. Edge left for his son’s college graduation back East on the same Tuesday the story broke. He wouldn’t comment on the sexual harassment charges, neither to confirm nor deny them. All he would say is that he hadn’t been sued by anyone as a result of the allegations — “to my knowledge.” He told the Trib “the issue” would “likely… be resolved within a week.”
One week later, the Board met to determine — or, as Edge claimed, ratify – his last day on the job with the County.
Closed Session Leak
The story began to take shape Friday afternoon, May 8, when the Board of Supervisors met behind closed doors in a special executive session. The topic on closed session agenda, Item B: “Conference with legal counsel. Significant exposure to litigation. Number of cases: 2. Facts and circumstances not known to potential plaintiff which indicate significant exposure to litigation.”
The session broke up at 7 p.m. and reconvened Monday at 8 a.m., lasting until 2 p.m. For the 10 hours of private discussion, all County Counsel Warren Jensen would say was “no reportable action was taken.”
Edge, 56, had been County Administrative Officer for more than a decade. He often mentioned retirement in recent years but remained, he said, to help steer the County through its current fiscal crisis. Wilcox, who is reportedly on leave until June 1, was assumed to be his successor. That chain of ascension is no longer automatic.
During the radio show, former 2nd District Supervisor Shirley Bianchi called in to voice her opinion on the story. However, Bianchi, an Edge supporter, did not call in to talk about the paid leaves, any allegations, or a County in apparent disarray; she wanted to talk about the illegal leak of confidential information from closed session.
Said Bianchi, “My understanding is that (in) the final closed session that is being alluded to here (in the CCN story) there were only five supervisors there and County Counsel Warren Jensen. Well I know Warren would never ever break a confidentiality, so it had to be one of the five Supervisors, so which one? And if you tell me that it was a woman that called (CCN) that doesn’t mean anything to me because the Supervisor could have had a woman call.
“My point is that the bigger story is who the ‘Hail Columbia’ leaked this story?”
Congalton asked Bianchi, “Why is that a bigger story than allegations of misconduct by our top two County officials?”
“Allegations float around that courthouse like you would not believe,” said Bianchi. “It just goes around and around and around. At the beginning of this item, Dave, you were referring to the three who were convicted (in previous County government sexual misconduct controversies), not just allegations, but who were convicted, to the point that my husband was calling it ‘the cavort house.’ This is before David (Edge). There is someone apparently on that board who leaked this story, and that to me is an even bigger story (than) a bunch of rumors floating around.”
Bianchi criticized the legitimacy of CCN’s story: “You’re asking a clerk to make a differentiation between what she can talk about and can’t talk about. Clerks don’t do that… Instead of building up an entire case around an alleged source that allegedly is talking about a Board of Supervisors closed session, that source that leaked something from closed session, that also needs to be followed through. Who did that?”
Los Osos Betrayed
While Edge and Wilcox are in the spotlight right now, the government official most likely to wind up in the hot seat as a result of the chaos in the County is Supervisor Gibson, who is running for reelection in November 2010.
Certainly, the biggest hot spot for Gibson’s re-election bid is Los Osos, where he has served as ramrod for the County’s flawed project. In his aggressive promotion of the County’s costly gravity-collection system, Gibson has offended elements of the community that previously had voted for him or even worked for his campaign, or the campaigns of fellow supervisors voting with Gibson.
After repeatedly promising the community a “head-to-head” cost comparison of the STEP collection system versus the County-favored gravity system, on April 7 the Gibson-directed Board of Supervisors suddenly decided to eliminate the STEP alternative from the design-build cost competition. Many who previously had trusted the County process to deliver the best project at the lowest price, who had voted “yes” on the 2007 Proposition 218 assessment vote because the County promised a choice and costs, now felt betrayed.
Immediately following that announcement, based primarily on the results of a County-crafted community survey. Chairman Gibson imposed a 10-minute speaking limit in the morning and 10-minute limit in the afternoon for non-agenda public comment on the Los Osos sewer – to be divided by the number of speakers that showed up for either public comment session.
Retired L.A. Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin of Los Osos was among the first to test the newly enforced talk limit – and Supervisor Gibson’s very limited patience – when she spoke, or tried to speak, about her concerns with due process and the County process. When she attempted to talk about the appearance of conflict of interest between Public Works Director Paavo Ogren and global contractor Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH), Gibson cut off her microphone on the word “Harza” (See “When the Microphone Went Dead”). As far as Gibson was concerned, the debate was over. It was going to be gravity collection and he made it clear that nothing was going to change his mind.
In return, Gibson’s heavy-handed tactics and thinly veiled contempt for certain public commentators from Los Osos has aroused the ire of residents protesting his broken promises as well as their detrimental economic and environmental consequences. His dumping of STEP, or any progressive, affordable “alternative” technology for that matter, before the design-build finals of the project – before bottom-line cost comparisons could be made — not only alienated former Los Osos supporters of Gibson, but also some who voted for Gibson in 2006 as “the lesser of the two evils” (against Morro Bay’s Rodger Anderson). Gibson may not have that margin of “dislikeability” working in his favor again in 2010.
The timing of the Edge/Wilcox “news” drew attention away from more significant Los Osos sewer matters, such as the relationship between Public Works Director Ogren and MWH. The Tribune was working on a MWH story at the time, but put it on hold because of the ongoing Edge/Wilcox story, as if they couldn’t work the two stories at the same time.
MWH is suing the LOCSD and the LOCSD filed a cross-complaint alleging bid-rigging and false billings. The original project management contract between the LOCSD and MWH, in September 1999, was signed by future GM Bruce Buel, not by then Interim GM Paavo Ogren, nor by the Board President. The backdated contract, authorized by Buel, who was not employed by the LOCSD at the time the contract was implemented, was amended several times for millions of dollars. Buel has claimed that Ogren advised him to sign the backdated contract. Ogren has said he exercised no authority over Buel. The backdating may have been a felony at the time, according to the District Attorney’s office, but the three-year statute of limitations had since expired on the 1996 contract.
“In fact,” former LOCSD president Lisa Schicker recently told The Rock about Ogren’s May 5 response to her conflict of interest complaint, “Mr. Ogren didn’t address the allegations in my complaint at all; he did not refute them, nor did he deny that he directed the backdating of the MWH contract, which is a fact, according to former LOCSD General Manager Bruce Buel.”
The sheer volume of allegations and weight of support documentation make it difficult for the County to deny absolutely all of it (other than for legal liability reasons) without attracting further scrutiny. According to his stated timeline, Jensen’s final written report on Schicker’s complaint is due next week, unless Edge/Wilcox matters delay Counsel’s response on MWH. If substantiated, the conflict of interest allegations could potentially cost MWH their top spot on the County’s shortlists and millions in contracts to build both the collection system and treatment plant. It could also cost Ogren further directorship of the project, if the County weaves a cover-up that eventually tears apart.
Ogren, who recently responded publicly to refute any conflict of interest with MWH, and MWH, under scrutiny for its business practices in Los Osos and Cape Coral, Florida, can relax — for now. Edge/Wilcox has conveniently knocked Ogren/MWH off the headlines, allowing the County’s “one-legged” gravity-only design-build phase to keep moving below the buzz line. The distraction is effective: Ogren and MWH fade to the sidelines as the spotlight shifts — away from allegations of too-cozy relationships between the County and its inner sole-source circle of consultants and contractors — and on to more alluring allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of County government.
Unfortunately for Gibson, there are more trouble spots in his 2nd district than Los Osos. Gibson also has ignored serious sewer problems in Morro Bay, where old, cracked gravity pipes continue to exfiltrate raw sewage into the groundwater and bay, and no one seems to want to tell Morro Bay taxpayers how much it’s going to cost to clean it up. While pollution of the bay by Los Osos septics remains unproven, it’s well known that the broken Morro Bay sewer system is polluting on a continuing basis. Yet, ironically, Gibson is forcing an unaffordable, $200 million leaking gravity sewer on Los Osos while Morro Bay’s antiquated, collapsing gravity sewer system pollutes bay and groundwater without a word of concern from the Supervisor.
In another painful twist of fate, Morro Bay resident Carrie Burton has repeatedly asked Gibson for help with the illegal septic system at the Roandoak of God compound on Chorro Cheek Road. Roandoak sits over the aquifer and less than 600 feet from Chorro Creek, which flows to the ocean. The building is unpermitted, in a flood zone, within 200 feet of wells, and has multiple non-permitted septics and multiple non-permitted failed leachfields still in use, all above a major aquifer. The facility is polluting nearby wells near Chorro Creek, possibly the creek itself, but Gibson has done nothing, even after several requests.
The County recently reactivated a proposed new permit application for the fourth time in 39 years, even though the property is zoned for use as vacant land. The County now claims that the non-permitted building there is a single-family residence; it is, in fact, home to more than 30 residents, and rent is being charged. Previous correction notices and Planning Commission records define it as a multi-family residence — carrying more stringent conditions than a single-family dwelling.
That excessive volume of sewage and gray water is not permitted or engineered to sustain the numbers of residents there, and is possibly making its way to the creek and into city wells. With the County’s almost two decades of knowledge and Roandoak’s blatant violations, it should be obvious that Roandoak should be red-tagged, cleaned up, and cleared up with proper permits, engineering and EIR, but Gibson won’t touch it.
Recently, Burton spoke at a Board of Supervisors meeting and a fidgety Gibson made a point of claiming the County was in the process of resolving her complaints. It taught her a lesson about speaking at BOS meetings under Gibson’s gavel.
Instead of taking action on the serious health and safety hazards she reported at Roandoak, the County retaliated against her, and cited her and her husband for having a dumptruck and a large container on their property.
The County has done nothing to resolve the Roandoak issues — the conditions Cal Fire specified for the certificate of occupancy were never met and the septic systems were never permitted. For years, the Morro Bay City wells there have been polluted with coliforms and nitrates – there are six years worth of Morro Bay well water test data to prove that, but still there has been no action from the County.
While Gibson has stepped up harassment of the De Vaul Ranch at Sunny Acres for running what the County claims is an unlicensed car junk and salvage business, and County Code Enforcement has threatened De Vaul for sheltering the homeless in potentially unsafe housing, Gibson gives Roandoak a free pass to break the law to dump at-risk individuals on rural Morro Bay so they will be out of sight, out of mind of, out of town — in a firetrap with no heat, crumbling asbestos siding, a questionable electrical system, no functioning sewage disposal system (chemical toilets have been installed outside the facility) and no clearance from Cal Fire.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board has also been slow to react to the ongoing violations there, and along with the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, have failed to prevent or stop the Roandoak “sanitation system” from polluting local waters. Morro Bay’s distance from downtown and the absence of an attorney willing to take on a hostile County some have called the most corrupt in California have conveniently keep the regulators and politicians away so they can focus on furthering their private agendas.
Gibson knows all about Roandoak, but does nothing to protect the people who are living there and paying $550 a month for the “privilege,” nor does he do anything to protect the Morro Bay City wells there, which have been shut down by the CDPH.
Gibson can ignore all this, but he can call Los Osos an environmental disaster – based on suspected pollution from septics — while the pollution from Morro Bay isn’t suspected, it’s documented fact.
Ogren isn’t the only conflicted official with a Los Osos history. Gibson has his own issues to deal with, as well.
Jack Greene, who introduced himself as Gibson’s campaign manager in Los Osos in 2006, is a partner in GeoSolutions Inc. in San Luis Obispo, a subconsultant to MWH, reportedly under contract for the Los Osos wastewater project prior to the recall election of 2005. Greene also at one time is said to have worked or consulted for Earth Systems, one of the original County subconsultants hired to confirm pollution in Los Osos to bolster the need for a project. GeoSolutions benefited directly with contracts on the MWH project, and the two companies stand to make even more on the “new” project. Gibson has not publicly defined Greene’s role in his last campaign, whether GeoSolutions should be recused from future contracts, or whether he feels it timely to address the appearance, if not the fact, of his own conflict of interest.
Pandora Nash-Karner, currently County Parks Commissioner, appointed by Gibson, is a close friend and advisor to Gibson in Los Osos, and supported his election. Nash-Karner submitted a contract proposal to the LOCSD on the previous MWH Tri-W project for approximately $750,000 for public relations services, at the same time she was serving on the Los Osos wastewater committee. (That proposal was rejected by the CSD.) MWH contributed $10,000 to the “Save the Dream” campaign to fight the recall of three board members behind the MWH Tri-W project. The head of that political campaign was Nash-Karner. The campaign failed, and the three midtown sewer leaders were voted out of office. Yet their influence has never been stronger on top County leadership behind the Los Osos sewer than it is today.
On May 5, a week before the Edge/Wilcox story broke, an angry Gibson followed Los Osos public comment with a strong rejection and denunciation of extensive, documented allegations of conflict of interest involving Ogren and MWH, which were submitted by former LOCSD Board President Lisa Schicker.
Gibson asked County Counsel Jensen for his legal opinion on Ogren’s prior role as Interim General Manager of the LOCSD and his association with MWH during that time. “My conclusions,” said Jensen in a preliminary report to the Board, “were that the materials that were submitted do not prove that there was any wrongdoing by Mr. Ogren.” This comment was made despite the fact that it already had been proven and verified that backdating a contract is a felony.
Ogren responded to Counsel’s remarks with bold confidence. “County Counsel has obviously indicated that his review has been limited to the information that has been submitted to him. If individuals out in the public or otherwise have more information,” he said, “I would certainly urge them to submit that as well, because unequivocally I have not engaged in any illegal or unethical activities.”
“In fact,” Ogren added, “I think that this is simply more of a pattern of behavior associated with the Los Osos Wastewater Project… There are some public references to other projects Montgomery Watson has worked on and that they should essentially be ‘blacklisted’ from this project. It certainly would not be my recommendation to ‘blacklist’ any firm in terms of their qualifications overall… In response to the very concept that we would ‘blacklist’ any firm, that’s very troubling to me. That would be the type of action that I believe would be significantly unethical, and I would not engage in or support.”
Schicker told the The Rock: “It was troubling as well that Mr. Ogren would use the word ‘blacklisting’ so many times in his comments, as this was never a request that I made in my complaint, but Ogren is notorious for his long-winded explanations and embellishing his soliloquies.”
“Suffice it to say,” Gibson addressed the chamber May 5, “I’m troubled by these submissions. They are rife with a number of unsubstantiated assertions of illegal activity by Mr. Ogren and corruption by Mr. Ogren, and I take considerable offense at those assertions, especially when the pattern is quite clear, that some information from here or there, a dramatically incomplete record of information, is thrown out and a great leap is made clearly in the direction of asserting some malfeasance on behalf of any individual who in my estimation conducted himself with impeccable integrity through this very long and arduous process.”
Schicker never mentioned the word ‘corruption’ – Gibson did.